“Once upon a time, among the Arapaho, there was a group of highly respected young men who served as messengers. In the Arapaho language, we referred to them as ‘those that fly.’ They wore special moccasins. When they ran, it appeared that their feet did not touch the earth.
– Arapaho Tribal Elder
Basketball, for the Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone of the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming, is a way of life and a source of hope… just as hockey is for the Cree of Northern Quebec. And that’s why a documentary by filmmaker Daniel Junge should be required viewing in every Cree high school.
CHIEFS follows the basketball team of Wyoming Indian High School for two seasons as they pursue a state championship. At the time CHIEFS was made (almost a decade ago), Wyoming Indian High had a student population of 150. Most belonged to either the Northern Arapaho or Eastern Shoshone tribes, traditional enemies, which had been forced by the U.S. government to share 3,500 square miles of central Wyoming in the 1870s.
It is hardly an environment conducive to success. Poverty, alcoholism, racism and youth suicide are just a few of the challenges the young people of Wind River face. But despite all of this – or perhaps because of it – basketball is played on the rez and played very well.
The film focuses on the 2001 and 2002 basketball seasons, and gives us a peek into the lives of players, both on and off the court. Junge and his camera follow the team from their first practice through to their battle to reach the state championship final. Along the way, the team faces challenges ranging from players engaging in substance abuse, to the hard choices the players must make about their lives after high school, to the racial taunts they must endure when playing on the road at much larger white schools.
“From the first day of shooting, I filmed everything,” explained Junge. “I tried to switch off my constant analysis of what might be appropriate or inappropriate, with the clear understanding that if at any point the subjects said no, the camera would be put away. They rarely did. I think this approach lends itself to the comfort level, intimacy and serendipity that make the film work.”
Although he attended film school at New York University, CHIEFS is a personal story for Junge. He was born in Wyoming and played basketball for his high school, which won the state championship.
“We knew about the Chiefs but we didn’t play them,” says Junge. “We probably didn’t want to play them because it was a losing proposition.”
Junge’s hesitation to face the Chiefs on the court is understandable. Since first embracing basketball in the 1930s, Wyoming Indian High has won a number of state titles, including six titles and a record 50-game winning streak under the guidance of Art Redman, who was coach of the Chiefs at the time the film was made. The Chiefs’ success is a truly amazing achievement for such a small school working with limited resources, playing against much larger and better-funded schools off the rez.
“Long time ago, we didn’t call it teamwork, we called ourselves a family. That is what I’m trying to instil in these guys. That we are a family.”
– Chiefs coach Art Redman.
But, success on the court has not always carried over into other aspects of life for the young people of Wind River, such as higher education and employment. Indeed, in the years since the film was made, not all the Chiefs players we get to know and care for in the film have found the success and sense of family they enjoyed on the court.
Most remain on the rez, while some have landed in prison, convicted of crimes ranging from drug-related offenses to manslaughter. However, a few have gone on to build their own families and contribute in a positive way on the reservation.
One of the players we get to know in the film is Beaver C’Bearing. During the 2001 season, the team looks to C’Bearing for leadership on the court. But off the court, he faces personal struggles including whether or not to go to college or stay on the rez. C’Bearing grew up without a father and while he receives much support from his mother, his friends and fellow players are his de facto family.
“Growing up without a father, it hurt. I mostly turned to my friends. They were always there when my dad wasn’t,” C’Bearing says in the film.
“You gotta believe in your prayers, if you want them to work,” he says as he leads his fellow players in a pre-game prayer.
Today, C’Bearing still lives on the reservation, where he has a family of his own and continues to work with the young people of Wind River.
Over the two years captured in the film, there are other positive signs, with role models like Assistant Coach Owen St. Clair returning to the community to help out after obtaining his college degree. Today, St. Clair is Principal of Wind River’s elementary school, and was honoured in 2011 to be named among Wyoming’s “Top 20 Under 40,” an annual award that recognizes 20 “inspiring standouts among the many young people whose talents and hard work are helping to build Wyoming.”
St. Clair understands how important the Chiefs are to their community; how the success of this small school’s basketball team raises the spirit of an entire nation.
“If you look at almost every house, you’re going to see a basketball hoop,” explains St. Clair.
“People grow up watching basketball, playing basketball. ‘I wanna be a Chief when I grow up,’ that’s what they are thinking.”
Through triumph and heartbreak, CHIEFS includes us as a part of a community that supports their team at home and on the road, especially at the state championship, where as many as 3,000 people show up to cheer them on.
“Last one on the rez, turn off the lights,” has become the reservation’s slogan every March.
To learn more about the film, visit www.pbs.org/independentlens/chiefs.
To watch CHIEFS online, visit the PBS page on YouTube, or look for a link to the film on the Nation’s Facebook page.